By KD Tait
SINCE Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide election as leader of the Labour Party, the grassroots network Momentum has formed 90 local groups to coordinate the activities of Labour Party members and supporters who want to champion the policies Jeremy was elected on and spearhead resistance to the Tories.
Local groups have rallied a cross-section of new and returning members enthused by the chance to break with the Blairite politics of privatisation, triangulation and militarism – the policies that lost Labour millions of votes and hundreds of thousands of members between 1997 and 2010.
But it won’t be an easy matter to change Labour policy.
There is a deeply held hostility to the influx of new members from certain sections of the party. The many councillors, MPs, and the apparatus of the party workers, researchers, and advisors who service them exercise a tight grip on the party. This is the prime obstacle to reshaping Labour and winning millions back to support us.
The constant briefing against the Labour leader by shadow cabinet members in the Tory press would never have been tolerated by Kinnock, Blair or Brown.
Caught between the new left wing leadership and the new left wing mass membership, this right wing apparatus is in fact the only active and organised “party within a party”. Many of them seem determined to obstruct and demoralise the new members, doing nothing to bring them to meetings and constantly attacking the leadership with the help of the Mail, the Sun, and even the Guardian.
That is why we need a grouping like Momentum to harness the energy and enthusiasm of new members.
So how is Momentum coming together?
The news that Momentum’s interim National Committee will meet within the month to draw up a constitution is a welcome chance for ordinary party members to shape its democratic structure, priorities, and strategy.
An original announcement that this NC would be composed of hand-picked delegates nominated by the leaders of Momentum provoked a backlash by local groups, forcing a U-turn. The NC will now feature elected delegates from regional groups, together with union representatives and others.
It is good that pressure works but it shows that we need to keep it up. Sadly the Labour and socialist left have got used to forming campaigns controlled from the back rooms by influential people – or what a Momentum press release refers to as ‘stakeholders’.
The danger here is that strategy gets decide by compromise between pre-existing groups, stifling democratic participation from the grassroots, instead of drawing on the energy and creativity of new members and supporters.
On the other hand a sense of proportion is vital. Momentum is a new movement which simply would not have off the ground without volunteers offering leadership. We a debt of gratitude to those who organised Corbyn’s campaign and need to build trust as we bring a new national organisation together.
The answer is a straightforward democratic structure. It is too early to prejudge it but we would expect it would likely involve delegated to be elected from local groups to regional committees which would in turn elect their representatives to a national executive. This body would organise a delegate based national conference which would be sovereign, adopting policy, and electing a fully accountable national leadership.
By contrast, trying to turn Momentum into a ‘broad social movement’ like Occupy, would be a mistake. In fact, events in 2015 showed that a broad mass of people were seeking a political, indeed a party political, instrument to fight the Tories. They clearly wanted this party to break radically and fundamentally with the party of Blair and Mandelson.
Duplicating the structures of the Occupy style movements of 2011 – anti-leadership, decentralised, unable to make decisions, with weak or non-existent politics – would disorganise attempts to democratise the Labour Party and win it to consistent socialist policies.
On the other hand, vesting control of Momentum in a small group of self-selected leaders – however virtuous – would simply be to copy the method of operation of the right wing, and, more importantly, it would make us a less effective force for positive change.
Instead we need an open discussion designed to bring differing perspectives and aspirations to the surface: how can we reach decisions efficiently and democratically? How can we make discussion of motions and committees feel less bureaucratic? How can we increase participation without degenerating into a talking shop?
We don’t have all the answers, but we need to to work on these issues because they are at the centre of different behaviours exhibited by returning members and new, young members respectively.
We should suggest an overarching goal, to develop Corbyn’s election platform from a set of policies to a guide to action. We would like to see Momentum adopt a programme with three key elements: proposals to democratise the party, policies for a future Labour government, and last but not least, suggestions for mass activity to resist the Tory government now, in the workplaces, and on the streets.
One obvious place to start is the campaign against local council cuts. Another is the fight to support the doctors and defend the NHS. A third is the fight against the Housing Bill, a fourth – opposition to Trident and the war.
On the doorstep, in every by-election, in every local and constituency election, we should be asking for so much more that people’s vote. We should be spreading the word about what they can do to fight back in the here and now. We should encourage them to join the party, and join Momentum.
In this way we can transform the Labour Party from what is has been up until now – an apparatus that disciplines the working class and holds us in check – into what millions of workers and youth have always wanted it to be: a party that can defeat the Tories and effect a socialist transformation of society. In many areas Momentum supporters have already started the process of bringing Labour’s policy into line with the views of the members – by supporting campaigns to defend local public services and revitalising opposition in local parties to Labour councils carrying out Tory cuts.
Party or movement?
This brings us to the crux of Momentum’s incipient identity crisis. Is it to be yet another campaign that runs in parallel with the Labour Party? Or is it a vehicle to coordinate and consolidate the rapid change Labour needs?
We believe Momentum must avoid the trap of ducking an open struggle with the right wing. We should not just be an auxiliary to the Labour Party but a force for its transformation. There is no need for Momentum to see itself as yet another umbrella movement against the cuts, of which there are already several – instead we should promote an active alliance of trade unionists and campaigners inside and outside the party to secure the most effective and widespread action against the Tories. We can do this without losing focus on the work of transforming the party.
The Blairite right have the Progress groups campaigning inside the party without a hint of criticism from the press. Momentum should be similarly focused in the opposite direction, shrugging off the barrage of media criticism we will doubtless continue to be subjected to.